One of my searing early memories from Israel is a visit nearly four decades ago to the Ghetto Fighters Museum in the Beit Lohamei Hagetaot kibbutz. The world’s first Holocaust museum, it was built soon after the Independence War by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Despite its posted visiting hours the museum was closed when I arrived. Not yet socialized to Israeli indifference to the yekke virtue of promptness on which I had been raised, I politely knocked on the door. Then I knocked more loudly, and insistently. After a few moments of mounting frustration, I pounded assertively. Finally, a janitor appeared and beckoned me inside.
Directly ahead was a display case with a single tiny pair of child’s shoes. It was hard to imagine a more poignant remnant from the brutally destroyed Warsaw community. Its brave leaders, young men and women in their twenties, had chosen to resist the Nazi onslaught rather than die in gas chambers.
Their desperate but doomed rebellion erupted on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover. Three weeks later, Szmul Zygielbojm, a member of the Polish government in exile in London, wrote: “I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. . . . I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.” Then he committed suicide.
On May 16, after nearly 50,000 Jews were rounded up for deportation to death camps and 13,000 heroic fighters had been relentlessly hunted down and murdered, Nazi commander Jürgen Stroop triumphantly declared: “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is no longer in existence.”
Thirty-four surviving fighters escaped through the sewers, among them Zivia Lubetkin, one of the underground leaders of the uprising. After the war, she married Yitzhak Zuckerman, who had commanded the ZOB resistance organization in Warsaw. They were among the founders of kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, built on memories of Jewish annihilation.
I visited the ghetto museum to pay homage to the 7-year-old Jewish boy from Warsaw, exactly my age at the time, whose iconic photograph was indelibly imprinted in my memory. Standing among a group of Jews “forcibly pulled out of dug-outs,” according to the photo caption from Stroop’s report, his arms were raised in surrender, bracketing his terror-stricken face. Wearing a cap, coat and knee socks, he was properly dressed for his final journey, surely to Treblinka.
As I completed my visit, the janitor approached and had me follow him downstairs. There, in her office, I met Zivia Lubetkin, about whom I knew nothing at the time. She brusquely asked about my background, my reasons for coming to Israel, and my response to the exhibits.
When I mentioned the shoes, her eyes blazed. I was, she sharply reminded me, old enough to remember the Holocaust. I was a Jew. I might have been among those children. With children of my own, she asked pointedly, how could I justify my decision to raise them in galut? I had no answers. I remained silent.
These memories were recently revived while reading Edward Rothstein’s “An Evolving Holocaust Message” in the International Herald Tribune (September 7). The message that Rothstein perceptively illuminated is that Israeli Holocaust museums – most conspicuously Lohamei HaGetaot – have decided to emphasize the “universal lessons” of the annihilation of six million Jews. “Indifference to the suffering of others,” not merely to Jews, must be confronted. The museum director mentioned plans to expand its mission to encourage “tolerance” between Jews and Arabs.
At kibbutz Yad Mordechai, which commemorates the courage of Warsaw Ghetto uprising leader Mordechai Anielewicz, the museum director concurs. She wants it to shift focus from “racism and xenophobia” to “peaceful coexistence” (as though future Nazis and their emulators can be taught by a museum visit to be civilized).
With this shift, Rothstein notes, Israeli Holocaust museums – with the conspicuous exception of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – are emulating the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It has become the model for universalizing the Holocaust, while underscoring the fashionable message of multicultural tolerance that its sponsors wish to convey.
That Israeli Holocaust museums should emulate their Diaspora counterpart reveals something profoundly dismaying about contemporary culture in the Jewish state. The Nazis targeted Jews for annihilation; now Israel confronts Muslim nations that are determined to destroy it. Yet despite eighty years of unrelenting Judeophobia, including the slaughter of six million European Jews and the expulsion of 700,000 Mizrahi Jews from their Middle Eastern homes, Holocaust museums are focusing on the necessity to be nice to neighbors rather than underscore the appalling consequences of hating Jews.
I have never visited, nor will I ever enter, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It opened twenty years ago to help world leaders and citizens to “confront hatred, prevent genocide, promote human dignity, and strengthen democracy.” These certainly are worthy goals – and pompous platitudes.
To be true to history, an American Holocaust museum should comprise one large empty room, draped in black. That would symbolize what the American government did – essentially nothing – to try to save European Jews, like that 7-year old boy in Warsaw, from Nazi extermination.
To be sure, it was not only an American failure. In his chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Yitzhak Zuckerman struggled to understand the reticence of Zionists in Palestine: “Why wasn’t it possible for them to come to us?” Had only ten paratroopers reached the ghetto, “nothing fateful would have changed, but it would have been different. . . . they would come to us in our distress.” But nobody came.
Especially in Israel, but not only there, Holocaust museums, rather than mollify visitors with trendy political correctness, might confront Zygielbojm’s bitter anguish and Zuckerman’s eternally haunting question.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of “Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey,” published in May by Quid Pro Books.
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